The Year In Bells

Osteria
Craig LaBan looks back at the year in restaurants in Philadelphia bumping up the ratings for three restaurants, Rae to 3 bells and Brandywine Prime and L’Oca were both bumped up to 2 bells. Jose Garces was named chef of the year and Osteria got the nod for restaurant of the year.

The bells: One more time [Philadelphia Inquirer]

Shundeez Gets Two Bells

Craig LaBan visits Shundeez in Chestnut Hill for some affordable and tasty Persian food.

Kabobs are this menu’s best bets, which makes sense, considering it was named after a town in Iran renowned for its kabobs.

All are carefully cooked over a grill that avoids getting too hot, and come over a bed of fluffy basmati, topped with a stripe of saffron-tinged grains and melted butter.

But the secret to these meats, it seems, is in the onion juice, which provides milky zest to marinades without the onion’s pungent zap. It seems to amplify the saffron and otherwise simple seasonings in the moist chicken kabob. It also lends extra depth to a filet mignon that is flattened and grilled along the wide skewer (ours was a bit overcooked, but still tasty).

Two Bells – Very Good

Shundeez [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Shundeez Restaurant [Official Site]

City Grange

City Grange

Photo by Ryan Charles

Craig LaBan puts City Grange through the ringer and finds the restaurant at the Westin suffers from careless cooking and an overly ambitious menu writer.

That second visit, indeed, showed a genuine glimmer of what City Grange is hoping to become. The hard peach had been replaced by a hard pear (at least it was in season). And the kitchen served a handful of memorable dishes.

The macaroni and cheese was as good an update to the classic as I’ve had, tanged with good Pennsylvania Noble cheddar and snuggled beneath a deeply crunchy crumb crust. The trendy Angus burger sliders were borderline delicious, with good meat topped in three pleasantly distinct ways. The Alaskan salmon was moist, and basked in the gentle contrast of its earthy spice rub and a sweet peach chutney. The massive ribeye steak from Meyer Ranch in Montana was undercooked, but the spice-rubbed meat was profoundly tender and buttery.

One Bell – Hit Or Miss

City Grange [Philadelphia Inquirer]

Silk City

Silk City Diner

Photo by Ryan Charles

It’s been a case of revolving chefs at Silk City since it opened but hopefully there’s some stability now and the kitchen can start clicking on all cylinders.

So it was back to chicken wings-by-the-pound on Oct. 1 with a brand-new chef, Matt Ball, formerly of Deuce. He has largely taken his cues from Dunmire’s earlier menu – and those plump and crispy wings, glazed in a buttery hot sauce that tickles your nose with vinegary heat, are worth the encore. But Ball has also added his own nice twists.

His “ultimate BLT” is exactly the kind of comfort-food upgrade that Silk City needs – true in spirit to classic Americana, but amplified by a clever touch and better ingredients. From the boar bacon and rustic bread to the layer of fried green tomatoes with spicy sriracha mayonnaise, every element recalls the original but delivers a deeper, more savory resonance.

Silk City’s best dishes are the starters, like the quesadillas stuffed with tender pulled BBQ pork and crunchy pickles(!), empanadas stuffed with chipotle-braised chicken, heartily spiced chili, and excellent calamari and rock shrimp fried in a cornmeal crust. The Thai-styled baby back ribs were also great, slicked with a sweet chile sauce and peanuts.

Two Bells – Very Good

Silk City [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Silk City [MySpace]
Silk City Diner [Official Site]

Bluefin

Craig LaBan likes Bluefin in Plymouth Meeting even if he thinks it getting the same food rating as Morimoto is a bit insane.

It’s an obvious case of Zagat-flation, where a core of devoted zealots have gotten carried away with love for their local haunt. That’s not to say Bluefin isn’t a worthy neighborhood destination for sushi. This plain little room has plenty of virtues, including a good selection of high-quality fish for a fair price, a few notable signature rolls, and a lively young staff that is friendly and efficient.

But let’s put it in a fairer perspective. Bluefin is more solidly in the upper middle class of the local sushi scene than one of its elite destinations, such as Morimoto, Fuji or Sagami, whose rare ingredients or master craftsmanship set them apart.

Two Bells – Very Good

Bluefin [Philadelphia Inquirer]

Honey in Doylestown

Craig LaBan tastes Honey in Doylestown. Not surprisingly honey plays a major role in the dishes, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad.

Whether McAtee scores or stumbles, he does it with exuberance. It’s a likable enthusiasm that infuses every aspect of Honey, including its friendly and generally well-prepared servers, who were charming even when they didn’t have all the answers about the small American wine list.

Two Bells – Very Good

Honey [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Honey [Official Site]

Coquette Gets 2 Bells

Coquette Bistro & Wine Bar

Photo by Ryan Charles

Craig LaBan takes in Coquette, the star-crossed French bistro at the restaurant black hole of 5th and Bainbridge.

Coquette, it seems, has the classic aplomb – and timeless concept – to survive brushes with disaster like Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline. Like any good flirt (that’s “coquette” in French), Neff’s boite has the retro-Paris look down pat, from the hexagon-tiled floor, tin ceiling and ’30s lamps inside to the rattan cafe chairs that gaze out onto this boulevard stretch of Bainbridge Street.

The room pulses with the noisy energy of an authentic neighborhood bistro. And much of the young clientele on my final visit was even dressed for the part, one done up for date night in Marseilles sailor stripes and an anchor tattoo with a glass of lambic, another whose curly tresses were pinned high with a Moulin Rouge carnation.

The French bistro fare is served with just enough success (especially given the reasonable prices) by Jeremy Nolen, who was a sous-chef when the restaurant opened.

Two Bells – Very Good

Coquette Bistro & Raw Bar [Philadelphia Inquirer]

LaBan Reviews Liberian Restaurant

Craig LaBan goes way off the grid this week in his review of Memdee’s, a Liberian restaurant in Southwest Philadelphia.

Tucked deep in the residential heart of Elmwood at 68th and Guyer, Memdee’s is the kind of restaurant even the most dedicated food tourist might never find. But I’ll count us among the lucky. After dipping into a powerfully soulful bowl of a starchy orb of fufu and soup, it was clear that this Liberian kitchen produces flavors worth seeking out.

Two Bells – Very Good

Memdee’s [Philadelphia Inquirer]

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